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Wednesday, December 13

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The Constant Gardener
Much like he did with his life-altering City of God, director Fernando Meirelles weaves multiple storylines and characters into a remarkable film that tackles some of the most important issues in our world today. In City of God, the topic was Brazilian children with guns. In The Constant Gardener (from one of John Le Carré post-Cold War novels), the nemesis is Big Pharmaceutical Corporations who are secretly testing potentially dangerous drugs on the unknowing inhabitants of Africa. The very idea is mind-boggling, and thanks to Meirelles' sure-handed direction, it's also much too believable.

I was shocked to discover that Ralph Fiennes hasn't been seen in a movie since 2002's Maid in Manhattan. But he's back with a vengeance here (and in the upcoming The Chumscrubber, as Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and as a voice in the Wallace & Gromit film) as low-level British diplomat Justin Quayle, who meets and eventually marries beautiful activist Tessa (played by Rachel Weisz). Before they get married, Justin is assigned a post in Africa and he assumes the relationship will dissolve, but to his surprise Tessa begs to come with him. Once on the continent, Tessa becomes a one-woman task force as her fellow activists communicate with her (mostly via the internet) about a drug company's secret research. Tessa keeps the details of her travels and investigations away from her loving husband, but she does not escape the eyes of Justin's fellow government workers, who may have more than a little stake in the success of these drug tests. Veiled threats against Tessa become less veiled as she gets closer to the truth.

I promise I'm not ruining anything here, but the film opens months after their marriage with the discovery of Tessa's raped and badly burned body (thankfully, we are spared the seeing or hearing much about these crimes), and most of the film involves Justin attempting to uncover the events leading up to his wife's assassination. The facts in the case are dense and closely guarded, but Justin's mild-mannered approach does result in discoveries almost beyond his comprehension. And after her death, Justin attempts to pick up the pieces of her work as he struggles to do the same with his life. The most remarkable thing about Fiennes' performance is that we need only look at his face to remember why he is going to such lengths to finish his wife's work: he needs this connection to her desperately.

The cast of reputable and not-so characters that maneuver in and out of Justin's life include Danny Huston as a long-time friend and co-worker with a slight crush on Tessa; the brilliant Bill Nighy as Justin's superior back in London (who's about as trustworthy as a circus barker); and Pete Postlethwaite as a nervous and paranoid doctor trying to undo the damage done by the drug companies and reveal the secrets he knows to the proper people.

The Constant Gardener is heavy, make no mistake, and John Le Carré is not the kind of writer who believes every story needs a happy ending. But in my estimation a film that moves me (even into great sadness) is one worth seeing. Justin is as an unlikely a hero as there is in films today, and the question never leaves your mind as to which is worse for Justin's well-being: finding out why his wife died or not finding out. Either way, his otherwise dreary life has very little meaning without her presence. Fiennes and Weisz are a beautiful couple, and it's clear what they see and need in each other. She needs someone stable to rein her in every so often, and who doesn't need a little Rachel Weisz in their lives? Don't be scared by The Constant Gardener's complex story or not being able to keep track (let alone trust) the many characters. This is a work of great power and daring, and more than anything it makes me desperate to see what director Meirelles has in store next. The film is now playing at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

A Sound of Thunder
Plagued by production problems and about two years on the shelf, this loosey-goosey adaptation of Ray Bradbury's celebrated short story is simply ugly and stupid science fiction courtesy of director Peter Hyams, the man behind such legendary stupifications as The Musketeer, End of Days, Timecop, 2010 and Capricorn One.

Shot in Prague (doubling for Chicago, 50 years in the future), the film follows the Jurassic Park formula to perfection: mess with nature and it will come back to bite you on the ass. "Nature" in this case is time travel. Someone a group of researchers has discovered the exact moment in time when a scary-looking dinosaur is about to drop dead, and they decide in their infinite wisdom to turn the event into a safari for filthy rich clients. By killing the dinosaur in the exact place (geographically and historically) where it was going to die anyway, they feel they are not disturbing anything in the past that could affect the future. They don't even use metal bullets, but rather they've substituted highly pressurized ice, which seem to do the trick.

Safeguards are in place, but since human error is always a possibility (especially where humans are involved), something occurs during one of the hunts that sets off a ripple effect in time that almost immediately starts "time waves" that change things in the modern world. New species of plants and animals begin appearing in future Chicago and all over the world, and the scientists somehow seem to figure out that one of these time waves will eventually transform humans into what they would have evolved into thanks to this alteration in history. Ben Kingley, sporting a shocking-white wig, plays the corporations flamboyant leader, Charles Hatton, while Edward Burns takes on Travis Ryer, the leader of all the hunts. Catherine McCormack (about as shrill as I've ever seen her) plays Sonia Rand, the inventor of much of the time-travel technology, who was then shut out when the corporation started to commercialize her work.

As with Bradbury's source material, there are some interesting ideas floating around A Sound of Thunder, but a clearly limited budget and bored performances from the actors seriously undermine what might have been a solid work. About two years ago, I was shown some production drawings from this film of Chicago in the future, and it took my breath away. One thing I will say about this film (and to a lesser degree with I, Robot) is that future Chicago looks pretty cool. There are several buildings on our new skyline that are taller than the Sears Tower; the Marina Towers are twice as tall; Michigan Avenue has pedestrian walkways going over the street; and there are twice as many El trains zipping around as there are today. Now imagine all of those mind-blowing ideas sloppily superimposed behind Edward Burns. Kind of takes the wind out, right?

Some of the new species are interesting and certainly threatening; I particularly liked the hybrid baboon and lizard creatures. But so many plot points in this film are just too difficult to buy into. The fact that power still works wherever the scientists need it to, despite every building in the city being overrun with plants, is absurd, but far from the film's biggest logic flaws. When the scientists finally figure out what happened on their hunt, they decide they have to go back and fix it, and the way they do this is laughable. Countless car and foot chases are tedious, and a subway tunnel flood sequence (complete with sea dragon!) is downright retarded.

Unnecessary subplots involving a new government agency created to monitor time-travel activities feel like exercises in killing time and do nothing to enhance the basic story. A Sound of Thunder is a catastrophic mess, and a miserable attempt at creating action when and where there should be contemplation of actions. That sound of thunder you hear now is my bowels loosening at the thought of this film.

El Crimen Perfecto
Or Crimen Ferpecto, or The Perfect Crime, or The Ferpect Crime, depending on how faithful to the original title you want to be. Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia is not necessarily a familiar one to many filmgoers. His works are absurd and grotesque (not necessarily gross, but they can be), and he features actors whose faces may not grace the cover of fashion magazines featuring people with flawless faces. In films like the Spaghetti Western tribute 800 Bullets, and others, including Dying of Laughter, Common Wealth, and Day of the Beast, de la Iglesia consistently fills the screen with wild and imaginative characters in somewhat familiar circumstances and film genres. Common Wealth, for example, has a Hitchcock feel to it, but Sir Alfred would never have cast such a motley-looking bunch. With Ferpect Crime (the misspelling is deliberate), de la Iglesia gives us his twist on film noir, with a plain looking femme fatale and a moderately handsome antihero.

A salesperson in an upscale department store, Rafael (Guillermo Toledo) is an object of desire to every woman in the women's department. He can sell anything to anyone (especially women), and he's a top earner for his store. His goal in life is to be floor manager, but a rival salesman with a bad toupee (Luis Varela as Don Antonio Fraguas, head of the men's department) challenges his dreams. Don Antonio is insanely jealous of Rafael's gift with women (he beds a different fellow employee nightly), and is determined to torpedo Rafael's career. Don Antonio gets the job and makes his first order of business to fire Rafael. After a heated exchange between the men, Don Antonio is accidentally killed, and the only witness to the crime is Lourdes (Mónica Cervera), a downright ugly, mousy employee, who has been silently obsessing about Rafael for years. Now she has the ammunition to make him hers.

At first coming across as wanting only to be Rafael's lover, Lourdes' insane intentions soon inflate to the point where he becomes her manservant and eventually her unwilling fiancée. In an effort to get his life back, Rafael silently schemes to end the relationship... permanently. De la Iglesia loves these characters to death, and he embraces their warped behavior and glaring faults. The film is part stalker film, part horror movie, part Fatal Attraction thriller, and a wild honking comedy all tightly wrapped for our consumption. Toledo somehow manages to be both charming and repulsive as Rafael, but it's Cervera's Lourdes who steals the film and our hearts, even as we're inclined to run screaming from her. The film is an unapologetic romp that puts sex and blood and craziness into a blender, making a tasty cocktail impossible not to get giddy over. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

2046
As a direct and indirect follow-up to his extraordinary Hong Kong period feature In the Mood for Love, writer-director Wong Kar Wai has crafted dual-layered, intertwining plots, featuring some of the same actors and characters from that landmark atmospheric film and inserted them into new and even more twisted tales.

Back is Ton Leung as our writer hero Chow Mo Wan, who is staying in Room 2046 in a sleazy hotel. For those paying attention, Leung stayed in the same room number in a different hotel in In the Mood... , but the number also refers to the final year before the Chinese government promised to let Hong Kong remain as it is. Across the hall is the always-stunning Ziyi Zhang, playing the glamorous prostitute Bai Ling (strangely enough, the name of a real Chinese actress). For those of you who have only seen her in sword-fighting and kung fu films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, prepare to be stunned, not just at the change of look but at her acting talents. Her character clearly loves Chow, and the two have many trysts together. But he barely acknowledges the fact that she sleeps with other men for money, and it breaks her heart.

Chow spends much of his time writing in his room. He's a science fiction writer, and we often get to experience his futuristic tales. You can probably guess what year they're set in. Both the film noir-ish tales of the writer and the prostitute as well as the far-future stories are fascinating in their own right. Wong has never created a film this visually awe-inspiring. He has shrewdly inserted a few famous faces into his stories, including In the Mood's Maggie Cheung (playing the futuristic Slz1960, a variation of her previous character), Gong Li as Su Li Zhen (the name of the character Cheung played in In the Mood... ), and Faye Wong, whose striking look populates both sides of real and fictional worlds.

2046's biggest fault is that it's confusing, almost impenetrable at times. Western audiences may not pick up on this, but each character speaks a different language. Some speak Cantonese, Mandarin, even Japanese, but they all understand each other. What the hell? And as much as I was trying to involve myself in the sci-fi story, it doesn't hold a candle to the moody, deeply rich, emotionally splendid more modern tale. All of the performances are astonishing, with each of the characters adapting various degrees of cool distance that cracks at key moments in the story. The exception to this is Leung's cooler-than-ice writer, who smokes his cigarettes and stands under perfect lighting, quietly taking in the events in his life and judging them with his stories. I am absolutely recommending the film as long as understanding it all isn't a priority for the viewer. Beautiful people and lush cinematography (from Wong regular Christopher Doyle) are the order of the day, and on that level, 2046 is a resounding success. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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